Content warning: Sexual violence
It is a fact that sex pervades the male brain.
Nearly everyone has heard some statistic about how often men think about sex, how often the average man masturbates or how often he watches porn. (Pornhub reported more than 33 billion site visits in 2018.) Perhaps the abiding male preoccupation with sex is hardwired and unchanging. But mutable or not, it is real, it is serious and it is dangerous.
I think about sex far more than I want to. I wanted to become a sex columnist not because I love thinking about sex, but because I believe sex is one of the things our society handles worst: We stigmatize wanting it, yet plaster sexualized messages across every available medium, and we wield a gendered double standard more aggressively with sex than anything else.
As beautiful as I find sex at its best, I also firmly believe it should be more contained: Sex should touch less of our lives. Personally, I’ve always felt I would get more done, focus better, behave more rationally if only I could think less about sex. In part, spreading sex everywhere dilutes its magic. And by the same token, sex gets taken less seriously: Ubiquity makes us want sex more while cheapening it.
Cue the male sex obsession. In recent years, a remarkable portion of mass shooters have been self-described incels, or “involuntary celibates,” whose misogyny could stem partly from sexual frustration. Simply thinking more about sex obviously doesn’t produce chauvinist terrorism, but the male preoccupation with sex, which can accrue into frustrated entitlement, doesn’t need to be lethal to be problematic.
The fact that men think so frequently and so readily about sex contributes partly to the epidemic of campus rape culture and the behavior called into account in the #MeToo movement. Where women might naturally think less about sex — e.g. the workplace — it’s still on men’s minds. For example, a co-worker of mine once told me, unprompted, that he could hardly take his eyes off of our manager given how she’d dressed that day. Because men think about sex more than women, they’re more prone to see situations as sexually inflected — as sexual opportunities.
If they’re thinking about sex, men are more likely to see situations as sexual, imagined or otherwise. Then all the other preexisting social failures — the failure to teach men the imperative of consent, to teach men not to rape, to hold men accountable for their transgressions — proceed to snowball.
Biology obviously fuels the disparity in sexual thinking. But the issue is also inescapably social: While we police female desire within an inch of its life, we gratify male desire in every nook and cranny of our culture — in movies, in music, in novels, in sports, in business and, of course, in politics.
But that is old news. I believe the problem transcends the double standard, transcends even the male tendency toward violence. The subtler but more damning reality is that men insert sex even where it doesn’t belong, which is where they’re also least likely to find real consent.
Our cultural norms fuel this pervasion of sex in life: Convenience stores carry Sports Illustrated next to Hot Pockets; football games open with cheerleaders in a few square inches of fabric; TV commercials still feature the likes of Paris Hilton’s 2014 Carl’s Jr. campaign; and Hooters exists. Capitalism encourages putting sex everywhere men could spend their money.
As always, the ideal solution starts with the perpetrator. Crucially, women aren’t at fault for the male sex obsession, and we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to censor female sexual expression. Men are the ones who should have to bring down the patriarchy, and men are the ones who should work to curtail where sex belongs in life. My response to my lascivious co-worker should have been a firm reproach — our boss is not a sex object — and likewise, men must reject the encroachment of sex in all things. If men are to think less about sex, they must also give themselves fewer chances to.
I’m not advocating repression. I think people, perhaps men especially, should be clear about their wants and needs so their sexual partners can say which desires they are or aren’t comfortable with. And I’ll advocate sex positivity with the best of them.
But men could see sex in far fewer places and still run no risk of repression. Men could quit buying Sports Illustrated, eating at Hooters or visiting Pornhub and still have a ways to go. And certainly, fixing our magazine and restaurant choices won’t fix our culture.
But this is a marginal solution, not a fell swoop. The fewer reasons men have to think about sex, and the fewer ways our culture normalizes the objectification of women, the better. As the axiom goes, “Everything in life is about sex, except sex: Sex is about power.” If we could reduce the ubiquity of sex, perhaps we could balance out power.
Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].